HIGHSNOBIETY: Chi Modu: The Man Behind the Lens of Some of Hip-Hop’s Most Iconic Moments

For Nigerian-American photographer Chi Modu, imagery goes beyond showing a lifestyle; it is about telling a unique story that brings the viewer closer to his subject’s truth. From photographing legendary artist like Tupac, Biggie and Nas to traveling the world and documenting the daily life of people in Yemen and India, Chi has created a unique lane for himself with a body of work that puts him in legendary status with no questions asked...

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Fotoware : Photography through 'The Eyes for Hip Hop': an interview with Chi Modu (Part I)

Chi Modu is a photojournalist who's responsible for producing some of the most iconic images of the Hip Hop movement. Throughout his career he has worked with legends including Tupac, Biggie and Snoop Dogg and his photos helped to define Hip Hop culture. He has recently released Tupac Shakur Uncategorized, a book featuring 200 pages of previously unseen photos of the rapper 20 years after his death. In Part I of our interview, Chi talks about how he began shooting with Hip Hop's biggest stars and why an empty billboard inspired one of the most important turning points of his career.

Tell us about your earliest experiences and how you first got involved with photography…

I was born in Nigeria, but raised in New Jersey. There was a civil war in Nigeria, the Biafran War, and my Dad was working on his PhD, at the University of Chicago, in America at the time so the whole family moved here to join my Dad. I moved here when I was three, went to high school here, went to college in New Jersey at Rutgers and then after college I moved up closer to New York City, where I started working small jobs and got in to the International Center of Photography (ICP). Photography was always a passion of mine and when I was in college my girlfriend at the time and I put the money together to buy my first camera in 1987 – and she’s now my wife today, so she saw the whole ride!

As I got a little older, post-college, I knew that I really wanted to do this and that’s where ICP came into play. It was kind of like the photojournalism training ground, a very traditional photo world and they’d train you for New York TimesTime Magazine - photojournalism stuff. But, for me at the time, I saw Hip Hop coming up and thought if I can take these skills and apply them to this burgeoning art form, it’s gonna make a difference. I brought a high level of photo skills into an arena that had been traditionally photographed a little bit more ‘Teen Magazine’, Fanzine style, and I brought 4x5 portraiture into it in 1993. That really jumped up the whole space a lot. I think in retrospect, when people look at my career, they understand that that’s why I became so well-known because I was so technical and serious back then, even when people didn’t really know what I was doing. But now 20 years later, they realize how important it was, but that’s the nature of the medium.

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Artsy : 12 Photographers Who Captured Hip-Hop, from Old School to the ’90s

12 Photographers Who Captured Hip-Hop, from Old School to the ’90s

Nigeria-born, New Jersey-raised photographer Modu is most famous for his iconic 1996 photo of Biggie at Jersey City’s Liberty State Park, with the World Trade Center looming in the background. As director of hip-hop magazine The Source in the ’90s, he shot more than 30 covers and became close with Biggie, Tupac, Mary J. Blige, and LL Cool J in the process. Modu strives “to show them as human beings and maintain their strength, but letting some vulnerability come through”—a skill evident in his simple, close-up black-and-white portraits of Tupac in 1994 that present the rapper at ease. These photos are featured in his upcoming photo book, Uncategorized: Tupac Shakur (2016), published 20 years after the rapper’s untimely death in 1996.

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Complex : Chi Modu x Pintrill Collaboration

In the week following the 20th anniversary of Tupac’s untimely death, NYC-based brand Pintrill has rolled out a new offering in honor of the late rapper’s life and career. It’s a three-piece pack made in collaboration with Chi Modu, and it features a Tupac pin, a Thug Life pin, as well as a Modu signature pin–the latter of which is exclusive to the set.

As many of you know, Modu is a famed hip-hop photographer who has photographed everyone from Biggie and the Wu-Tang Clan to Snoop Dogg and Mobb Deep. He’s also responsible for some of the most iconic Tupac images and recently released a 200-page photo book dedicated to the rapper. The project, titled Uncategorized, includes never-before-seen photos of Pac taken between 1994 and 1996.